I wrote down everything I read and began writing my own first novel...

This blog aimed to contrast what I was reading in in 1975-79 with the same month, week and day, 30 years later in 2005-2009. I'm leaving the blog up in archive mode, blogging in real time on Live Journal--and still writing novels.

Lynne Murray's Live Journal and Bride of the Dead Blog

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Colette in occupied Paris, Jennifer Weiner in Shoes and taboos

From September 22 to 25, 1975, I read:

Looking Backward, Colette

I remember reading many of Colette’s books, and even where I was living and where I sat or lay when I read them--many of my small apartments had no chairs, so I frequently read in bed. But specifics on this book eluded me. So I looked it up on the net and found a 1975 New York Times review by Anatole Broyard. Vaguely, I remember that this was about her life in Paris during the Nazi occupation, but I hadn’t remembered that she purposely went there when she could have stayed in a small village. God, I love the Internet (also Colette)!

Who could describe better than Colette, I thought, the almost dreamlike character of life in Paris during the Occupation? Safely lodged in a small village in central France, she had returned to Paris impulsively, unwilling to miss the tragicomedy, the cramped heroism, of keeping body and soul together under such conditions. A connoisseur of gestures, she was ideally equipped to appreciate the strategies of improvisation, the stubborn Gallic shrugs of perseverance. Already quite old and partly lamed by arthritis, she sat in her window, one of France's greatest voyeurs, and reviewed the long-running drama of survival.

How to keep warm? she asks in "Looking Backwards." "An old armchair is sure to burn slowly and steadily. I used to know a Breton set of shelves which would go up very well in smoke ... the skeletons of crates, the handles of broken brooms, the empty case that once held a dozen bottles of champagne ... let's screw up rolls of newspaper with an iron wire, which will burn almost without flaring up." A friend is traveling to Boulogne to buy animal sculptures to burn, "a stag and a Newfoundland dog, both in wood, life-size. A Newfoundland had a hare in his mouth and a thick tree trunk beside him -- even a branch of flowing hawthorn ...
from Anatole Broyard’s 1975 NYT review of Colette’s Looking Backwards.

From September 22 to 25, 2005, I read:

In Her Shoes, Jennifer Weiner

I contemplated reviewing this for my web page where I consider books that touch on size acceptance, but I decided not to. The interview with Jennifer Weiner that was included at the back of the paperback has a section that illuminates why I didn’t want to review the book. Actually I agree with Weiner on most points, but I put in bold the section that pointed to why I didn’t want to write an entire essay on her book, and explained below:

Q: In both of your novels [Good in Bed and In Her Shoes], the idea of body image is a central theme. Do you think this concept is a constraint that we place on ourselves, a restraint that society places on women, or a combination of the two?

A: Um, all of the above? I think it starts out as being a societal mandate—a kind of signpost outside of life’s roller coaster, reading “You Must Be Less Than This Fat Or Nobody Will Ever Love You”—and it’s something that women internalize, and carry with them in different ways. One of the things I was trying to do with this book was to show both sides of the coin, and the different ways that buying the beauty myth can harm you. Rose, for example, who’s a normal size and healthy, gets the message that her body is something to be ignored and concealed, swathed in sweatpants and unfashionable-length skirts, until she learns that however it appears, her body is first and foremost, something to use—to get her around, to ride a bike, to walk a dog, to hold the people she loves. And then there’s Maggie, who’s got this ready-for-its-closeup body (which, as we see, requires a tremendous investment in terms of effort and time), but it doesn’t bring her all the happiness that the plastic surgeons and diet merchants promise. It gets her scads of attention—good and bad—and it gets her judged, the same way Rose’s body earns her judgments. I hope someday the idea of “you are how you look” will change. . . But I worry that there’s so much money to be made off of convincing women that they’re inadequate, too big, too little, or otherwise completely unacceptable that change is going to be painfully slow.
From A Conversation with Jennifer Weiner, p. 534-35, Pocket Book paperback edition of In Her Shoes.

As I said, I totally agree with that last bit, and I realize that every woman in America today has to live with constant pressure to feel bad about herself—and then go buy something to make her feel better.

But Weiner has chosen to tell the story of a “normal size” sister, whom our twisted culture beats up on as “fat,” with her body-obsessed, yet dyslexic sister, who manipulates others with her body and is trashed by those around her as “stupid.” She's spanned the whole gamut of body oppression from A to B (to paraphrase Dorothy Parker's review of Katherine Hepburn).

I think Weiner’s work is size positive, but intentionally avoids scaring people away by using a character who actually is fat--as opposed to one who is merely healthy but considered as fat in our twisted view. I am guessing that this was a conscious decision on Weiner's part and it can be defended from the point of view of reaching a larger audience (um, larger in the sense of more readers, not larger readers). It certainly has worked, in that the paperback I bought was a mass market edition accompanying a motion picture release.

A positive fat character, a meditation instructor, appears in Weiner’s Good in Bed. The heroine, Canny, calls her a good “role model” but almost immediately upon sitting down to meditate, she has an insight that causes her to run away. One could argue that it's only coincidence that she talks to a fat lady and leaves town immediately. But from where I sit, it looked as if she needed to distance herself from the very idea of this woman’s fatness—be she positive or negative.

As a novelist, I know it’s damn hard to bring the reader into the head of a humanized fat character—as opposed to a stereotype of one sort or another.

Worse yet, and it is worse, I truly believe that an actual fat character used in a positive way is a taboo in fiction nowadays. And it’s not one of those fun-to-break taboos like cannibalism and necrophilia that bring in the big bucks.

My writer’s brain is already meditating on that State of the “F” Word essay. . . I’ll take my keyboard and soap box in the other room and let you know when it’s done and up on the web page. . .

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

A spy by any other name & talking the writer's block blues

September 18-21, 1975 I read:

Spy/Counterspy: The Autobiography of Dusko Popov

The name's Popov, Dusko Popov....
Some names cry out to be fictionalized.

Worse yet, the name of this book is confusing to Mad Magazine readers. When I looked at this 30 years later I wondered if it was a book of cartoons. Fortunately, the Internet informs us that "Popov was one of the most important double agents the British had during World War Two and was rumored to be Ian Fleming's model for James Bond. Known to the British as 'Tricycle' and to the Germans as 'Ivan’” It's vaguely coming back to me.

September 18-21, 2005 I read:

Wonder Boys, Michael Chabon

Sometimes I get in the mood to read about writing—usually not a sign of productivity! Chabon has an interesting insight--

…about the nature of he midnight disease, which started as a simple feeling of disconnection from other people, an inability to “fit in” by no means unique to writers, a sense of envy and of unbridgeable distance like that felt by someone tossing on a restless pillow in a world full of sleepers. Very quickly, though, what happened with the midnight disease was that you began actually to crave this feeling of apartness, to cultivate and even flourish within it. You pushed yourself farther and farther and farther apart until one black day you woke to discover that you yourself had become the chief object of your own hostile gaze. Wonder Boys, p. 76

Hmmm, creative writing as a form of substance abuse. Fortunately the navel-gazing insights in the book are interspersed with road trips, minor thefts, low-life characters and genuine humor. It may seem hard to imagine being captivated by the story of a professor with writer’s block and practically no conscience, suffering through a college literary festival. But the Hunter S. Thompson style field trips provide enough action to make the book hard to put down.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

A-bombs, exorcism and lost books re-found

September 12-17, 1975 I read:

Lawrence and Oppenheimer, Nuel Pharr Davis
Interesting book about the fathers of the atomic bomb.

The Devil’s Bride, Exorcism: Past and Present, Martin Ebon
I looked this up online and discovered that there is now a racy Regency romance novel with the same title! Um, just the “devil’s bride” part, not the part about “exorcism past and present”--I guess THAT would be a work about divorce law.

The Youth Doctors, Patrick M. McGrady, Jr. (skimmed. A very tedious book.)

September 12-17, 2005

Eleven On Top, Janet Evanovich
Recent Evanovich books have not made me laugh as much as this one, definitely a fun read.

Fly Away Home, Marge Piercy
I had read this in the mid-80s. The book about a woman finding herself in mid-life resonated with me. But for some reason I didn’t connect Piercy the novelist with Piercy the poet, whose work I also read.

On re-reading, I was startled to see how many small, peripheral things in this book influenced me. I recently even wrote a "women's novel" (romantic comedy--title: The Happily Ever After Diet, a Guide for the Dysfunctional Bride, with size acceptance highlights) with a heroine named Daria. My Daria is, however, very different from Piercy's, and I still haven't found a publisher for her story, alas! Oddly, when I mentioned Fly Away Home to a friend who has read everything she could find by Piercy it turned out this was one she hadn’t read. I had to have another reading of it before I passed it along! It was as good as I had remembered.

Sleeping with Cats, Marge Piercy
Autobiography with cat appreciation. It always interests me the degree to which authors are or are not sociable. Aside from her cats, Piercy has led a life with an amazing about of major human social interaction--friendly, romantic, political... I got exhausted just reading about it! Some of the cat stories were sad, but stories from her life were interesting enough to keep me reading past midnight.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Many flavors of escape, humor and a cry for self-help

In 1975, having finally graduated (over the summer) from San Francisco State, I started a full-time word processing job at a bankers' association. This cut severely into my reading time. If I started to read something that didn’t offer the kind of escape I needed, I didn’t bother to finish it.

September 3-11, 1975 I read--

Half Lives, Erica Jong

I'm Done Crying, Louanne Ferris as told to Beth Day

Hanging by a Thread, Joan Kahn, ed.

The Best from Orbit, Damon Knight, ed (SF anthology)

The Black Widowers, Isaac Asimov in mystery writer mode

This Side of Paradise, F. Scott Fitzgerald (didn’t finish)

Forbidden Colors, Yukio Mishima (couldn’t endure it—skimmed it)

By contrast in 2005, my need for escape is less intense, writing fulfills some of it. Also, for various reasons, my books come from other places than the public library, so I can't be quite as impulsive. The desire for escape has morphed into a quest for laughter and self-improvement, which come in many flavors.

September 3-11, 2005 I read:

Holidays on Ice, David Sedaris
For the longest time I had David Sedaris and Augusten Burroughs mixed up. When I opened up the mailer with the copy of Holidays on Ice, I wondered if I had accidentally bought two copies of the Burroughs book, Dry. Both covers are white with gray details and sinister moods. Holiday has a white cover with a black and white photo of a clear liquid in a whiskey glass, with black snowflakes showing up against the ice cubes. Then I realized that Dry has a white cover with blurred gray letters, no graphic. Whew! Ten dollar error avoided and I now no longer confuse Sedaris and Burroughs.

Sedaris’s small book (134 pages) provided several laughs in the first essay--"The Santaland Diaries," which recounted the author's adventures as an elf in Macy's Santaland. The other three essays left me cold as the ice cubes on the cover. I just don’t know, and thus can’t laugh at, rarified suburbanites who use the holidays as markers on a social climbing expedition. On the other hand now I understand why Sedaris is so frequently published by The New Yorker.

This reminded me how fragile, quirky and culturally nurtured humor is. Like a delicate flower, it blooms in one climate and refuses to stick its head out of the ground in another.

What to Say When You Talk to Yourself, Shad Helmstetter, Ph.D.
My friend and fellow novelist Jaqueline Girdner entitled one of her Marin County murder
mysteries, A Cry for Self-Help. Helmstetter would be comfortable talking to the New Age suspects in that book.

Is there a 12-step group for those of us addicted to self-help books? I don't know if I'm ready to give up the habit though, because some of these books have proved incredibly useful. I learned to stop at least 90% of my negative self-talk on body issues with some of these simple techniques from Marcia Hutchinson’s Transforming Body Image, and similar body-positive works.

I expected What to Say, etc. to be about self-esteem, but maybe a little more generic. Not exactly. It turns out to have a bit of Napoleon Hill type Think and Grow Rich flavor to it.

The first part of the book is great, about keeping affirmations simple. There’s a cute story about his sitting down in the middle of three empty seats in a crowded airport, initiating both sides of a loud discussion with himself, managing to get three seats to himself to engage in his audible self-talk.

Unfortunately, Helmstetter seemed to go totally bonkers in the last part of the book. It’s like his affirmations become cumbersome contracts covering every possible eventuality. Throw one of those at it, and I think my subconscious mind would react in a similar way to my conscious mind—hey, leave me alone and stop telling me every little thing to think. The first part, where his suggestions are simple, seemed possibly useful.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Object lesson for me on finishing books before commenting...plus warning label

I regret that I didn’t quite finish reading Augusten Burroughs’ Dry when I wrote yesterday’s entry. I hadn’t reached the two pages wherein he details his disgust at Sally Struthers’ fatness, and envisions her in vicious detail—collecting donations for her Feed the Children charity and using them to buy and messily consume junk food. I guess there is supposed to be a joke swimming somewhere in that vitriol.

I totally get that Burroughs’ fat hatred is fat phobia from a self-confessedly appearance-obsessed gay man of a certain age. Hey, I read a LOT of stuff by authors who meet that description. But not if they gratuitously spit venom on fat women, life's too short to pay people to do that.

I write this in irritation with myself: (A) for not finishing the book before I endorsed it, and (B) for not totally “getting” the fat phobia until nearly 24 hours after I did finish the book. We live in such a sea of body hatred messages, that sometimes I get numb to them.

Now about the cats. I almost called this entry “fat hatred and cat hatred in Burroughs” but I think it’s more like fat phobia and cat victimization….

I long ago decided that no book, no matter how well-written is worth the piece of my life it would take to read it, if it contains fat hatred and/or cruelty to animals. I was disturbed by the crazed adolescent starving her cat to death in Running with Scissors. But yesterday I read on a blog that there is discussion of a cat-poisoning substance in Burroughs’ most recent book, which is labeled fiction--no doubt with an eye to not being sued, as he's currently being taken to court by relatives of the crazy doctor portrayed in Running with Scissors. The blogger mildly suggests that crazy people who might read such a book don’t need more information to facilitate animal abuse. I agree.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

charm, laughter, and thoughtful things

August 28-31, 1975, I read:

Mother Goddam: The Story Of The Career Of Bette Davis, Whitney Stine

This book is waaaay out of print now. My memory of the joke Bette Davis made about the title came from the notorious 1926 play, The Shanghai Gesture. She remarked that when Hollywood made the picture, the owner of a notorious Shanghai brothel, Mother Goddam, would have to be called “Mother Gosh Darn.” In the von Sternberg film the part was re-christened Mother Gin Sling, so she wasn’t far wrong (though she didn’t play the part).

Born with the Dead, Robert Silverberg

Isaac Asimov's Treasury of Jokes, Isaac Asimov, Ed.

The Roots of Coincidence, Arthur Koestler
--I noted "such a small book and I couldn't finish it even though I LIKED it." Who knows, one day I might finish this!

The Embedding, Ian Watson

August 28-31, 2005, I read three books that would seem to have not so much in common, but in fact all three are sustained primarily by the author’s charm:

In the Company of Cheerful Women, Alexander McCall Smith

This is a mystery that follows none of the conventions of a murder mystery. There is no murder, and the rather mildly mysterious crime that is presented is never solidly resolved. Yet, the book is worth reading for the author’s evocation of Botswana and the further developments in the lives of the Precious Ramotswe and her associates at the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, characters we’ve come to care about in previous books. I also need to mention how beautiful these hardcover books are in every detail, notably the bold, almost Kente cloth-style African designs on the end papers (orange in this case) that compliment the covers.

Running with Scissors, Augusten Burroughs

Burroughs’ memoir of a bizarrely dysfunctional childhood, is a story of survival very different from McCall Smith’s gentle meditation. But Burroughs has his own kind of charm and humor, and it was sufficient to keep me reading his tale of an upbringing that makes Christina Crawford’s Mommy Dearest sound like Little Women. In Dry (see below) Burroughs sums up his childhood when he explains it to a potential boyfriend:

He was surprised to learn that my Southern parents divorced when I was young and that my mother gave me away to her psychiatrist when I was twelve and that I lived with crazy people in the doctor’s home and never went to school and had a relationship with the pedophile who lived in the barn behind the house.

In a nutshell (to coin a phrase) this is the subject matter of Running with Scissors. To pull laughter out of such raw pain a major accomplishment. (E.g., when Burroughs at 13 wants to quit school, his doctor and now legal guardian, suggests a suicide attempt and proceeds to supply both liquor and pills, and walk the child through it, supervising his hospitalization and then writing a letter to the school so that Burroughs can be officially excused due to mental fragility.)

There is a gross-out, “what-atrocity-will-happen-next?” quality to the book and I cringed as often as I laughed—a few episodes I skipped, and a few I wish I had skipped. My fellow cat-lovers may want to either avoid the book or skip the section where one of the crazed daughters decides her cat is sick and proceeds to starve it to death with no intervention from any family member.

But I was interested enough to read Burroughs’ next book Dry. Anyone who can make me laugh several times in the course of a book is worth a return engagement.

Dry, Augusten Burroughs

This is the story of Burroughs’ adventures in rehab. He brings us up to the point at which the story begins by saying.

When I finally escaped [from a life of squalor, pedophiles, no school and free pills], I presented myself to advertising agencies as a self-educated, slightly eccentric youth, filled with passion, bursting with ideas. I left out the fact that I didn’t know how to spell or that I had been giving blow jobs since I was thirteen.

Although successful at 24, his monumental alcohol problem comes to the attention of his employers, who intervene and send him to rehab. In a way it’s a familiar story, and it reminds me of Marian Keyes’ Rachel’s Holiday. Not as much wild laughter—the deep wounds sustained in childhood are beginning to be dealt with. But, Burroughs is not only brilliantly witty, but also thoughtful, warm and decent.